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Jane Dicker: Being a Benedictine Oblate

Episode 50

Jane Dicker: Being a Benedictine Oblate

Welcome to the Loved Called Gifted Podcast. This is your place to come for musings about spirituality, identity, and purpose.
I’m your host, Catherine Cowell.

So today I'm here with the Reverend Jane Dickers and we have had a conversation previously which we released on International Women's Day, and that was to talk about your journey towards ordination as a woman, 2024 being 30 years since the first women in England were ordained as priests in the Anglican Church.

So we talked about some of the joy of that and in the course of that conversation you mentioned that you were a Benedictine Oblate.

J: Correct.

C: Yes.

So I thought it might be really interesting to just explore that a little bit, what a Benedictine is, what an Oblate is and sort of what the spirituality of that is and what aspects of that might be helpful to people.

J: I think we really have to go back in time to the 5th century of course when St. Benedict started up his order and he wrote a rule for people.

C: Yeah.

J: And there's 73 chapters in this rule, and it goes from everything including to the point of how many pairs of pants you're allowed and all this sort of thing, but it does go through the whole lot and it is meant predominantly for monasteries and the ordering of a monastery.

C: Right.

So often people start things because there are other things going on in society that they are not pleased with or they've got a vision that things could be different so I'm wondering what was happening in Benedict's context.

C: It was a very very difficult time of course with, you know, the breakdown of the Roman Empire, and you've got the barbarian invasions and a great deal of instability, and so one of the things that Benedict wanted to do was to create a space where people could find that stability within them that wasn't necessarily there in society.


So I think that's one of the big starting points.

He wanted to encourage men in particular to think about their way of life and to dedicate themselves to a life of prayer and obedience, which is always an important part of any of our religious orders.

And then something called ‘conversion of manners’, which is about becoming more Christ-like, which of course we all try and do in our daily lives to try and live out the gospel message and be a bit more kind, considerate and prayerful, and all the things that Christ calls us to be.

J: So it's a bit more than knowing which spoon to use.

C: Absolutely.

I mean it is a book of its age, you know, and it will talk about discipline, so if people read it they might think “hmm,” you know, “that's dreadful,” you know, “caning children,” and which of course it is, but in the 5th century it was about a moderate form of discipline, and this was what he was talking about.

So you have to try and read it with the lens of the 5th century rather than the 21st century.

C: Yeah.

So what was going on in the church at that time that Benedict was feeling he had an answer to?

J: The church I think was floundering in lots of ways about how to manage what was happening in society.

It tried sometimes to do it like it has always done in the past by being more strict and strident and so on, and of course that normally fails doesn't it?

Benedict wanted to have something positive to offer, something that beginners - that's what he talks about, this is a rule for beginners.

No one should think of themselves as superior but he is quite clear about being obedient to the abbot, for example.

C: So moving forwards a few years, when did you first come across Benedictine's?

J: Right well they sort of dipped in and out of my life, because when I was at Theological College we had, obviously, a course on spirituality, and one of those sessions was on Benedictine, and one of our tutors was a Benedictine as well.

So you know there was that sort of element to it, and then somebody gave me a card, I think at my ordination, and it had the prayer of St Benedict on it, and I thought “hmm, yes, that sounds like me” about trying to find wisdom and all the other things that the prayer talks about.

So I had that and then again later on somebody gave me another card with St Benedict on and a medal for my rosary and that brought it all to life as well, and I kept thinking, “this person keeps dipping in and out of my life” and then when I went to work in Rochester somebody said to me "Oh, do you go on retreats Jane?"

And I suggest I do like to go on retreat every year but I flitted around. I've been to all sorts of different places. I love the Julian Shrine in Norwich, I've been there loads of times, but I hadn't really found a home as such, and so they told me about Westmalling Abbey.

So I got in contact with the Abbey to say I'd like to come on retreat and the guest sister, very sensible woman, said "Well why don't you come over for afternoon tea and Vespers" so that's like evening prayer "and see how you get on."

So I went over there, tea and cake, lovely, and then Vespers, beautiful singing, and of course the sisters do the singing and you pray through their singing, so you're praying the offices through what they sing, but you don't join in the singing. Just as well really considering my voice, it would not be a good plan for me to join in.

So that was my first encounter, and then Sister Shona, the guest sister, said to me "Why don't you come for two nights" which is like the minimum of going "and see how you get on."

So I trotted along and I had two nights in retreats. I read the books that I was reading, I think it was during Lent, so I have my Lent book and all of that, attended all the offices and I loved it.

I love the anthems that they sang in the evening after Compline and I found it really helpful to my spirituality and way I express my faith.

So then I went back for a longer period, and then after that I started going a couple of times a year.

C: So you'd found your retreat home?

J: I found my retreat home. I was very much there and I remember feeling that God wanted me to go forward and to be an oblate as well as being a priest; that I was sharing in the oblation really as a layperson.

C: Right, you're gonna have to tell us what an oblate is, and what an oblation is.

J: Okay so an oblate is somebody who feels called to live out the life and the rule of St. Benedict, but in their own home and their own community, and you're guided by an oblate sister.

So one of the nuns, stroke monks, guides you through that journey and every time I go to Malling Abbey I meet with my oblate sister who's called Sister Bartimaeus, and she's wonderful, very wise, and first of all you you have a little catch up but the second time you meet you concentrate on where you are with your rule and anything that you're struggling with within your spiritual life, anything that really stands out for you in your spiritual life that's happened during the time that you've been away, and you are expected to go at least once a year.

C: Yeah.

So that's all part of being an oblate and you make this rule that suits your life.

It's not a stricture that, you know – and it changes.

So for example in my rule it talks about things like how often I'll go to the Eucharist, through the week and every Sunday, and then it will talk about something called Lectio Divina which is about reading the Bible in a particular way so that you really concentrate and focus on every word.

You might just have a sentence from a psalm and then you're living that out in your daily life.

It walks with you as you go along.

So how much Lectio Divina am I going to spend?

Is it 10 minutes a day, 20, all of that sort of thing?

Am I struggling with that?

Lots of people do and I confess I find that quite hard.

And then it will talk about other aspects of prayer life and then going through the stability, obedience and conversion of manners, which are the three main aspects and then really anything else that you feel is important within your spiritual life and journey.

C: So you have a rule of life which is sort of I guess your interpretation or your working out of the Benedictine rule?

J: Yeah and it includes everything from your spiritual reading to your prayer life to how often you're going to Eucharist.

All of those things are encapsulated within it and you revisit it, which is the good thing and you alter it as you go along and as your life allows you to do things.

And the same for saying the office.

They've got lovely office books that you get when you become an oblate or just before so that you get used to using them.

C: So the offices are…?

J: Morning and evening prayer.

C: So an office is a sort of like a prayer service?

J: It's a prayer service, and you have Lauds which is morning prayer, and Vespers which is evening prayer.

And most people have heard of Compline.

C: That's kind of a last thing at night prayer.

J: That's it, last thing at night prayer.

But then you have them for the hours of the day.

So you go through, you have something about nine o'clock, you'd have something at midday, you have 'known' at three o'clock.

I will tell a little story now.

I took a group of my parishioners to Malling Abbey for a retreat.

And after we'd had the afternoon office of 'None', there was a lady who wasn't present.

And one of my parishioners said, "We're not judging but we noticed you weren't at the office."

And she said, "No, because it said none on it so I thought there was nothing."

Because 'None' of course is spelled N-O-N-E.

So yeah, it's really easy to, if you don't know the language, which is why you're so right for us to go through it all, then it's very easy to make mistakes or not understand it properly.

C: Yeah.

So it sounds to me Jane as if part of your spirituality is really helped by these sort of really practical guidelines about when you're going to do things and what you're going to do.

J: Yes, although again, living your life as you do, you can't be hard and fast.

I would love to say, "Oh, I say all the offices at the same time that the nuns do at West Malling.

Well, it's not going to happen because that phone is going to go at three o'clock or I'm going to be called out to do a service at nine o'clock."

So it isn't practical.

You have to work it into your life really.

C: Yeah.

So how has your life changed since becoming an Oblate?

J: I think I'm more reflective for it.

Instead of charging into things like a bull in a China shop, I do tend now to take a step back and reflect more on things.

So I think that's one important way.

And as I think I said before about the stability has been very important for my own life and being able to be in one place for a good length of time.

C: So although West Malling Abbey isn't where you live, that's in Kent.

J: Yes.

C: It's sort of the place that you go back to.

J: Yes.

So I normally go now about three times a year and split it up so I have four days in a week, something like that, because you can have like two weeks there.

Because obviously the accommodation is not enormous and lots of people want to go which is a good thing.

C: Yeah.

So what are some of the prayer practices that you've developed partly due to being an Oblate?

J: So I think praying through the Bible has been more, you know, taking a word, taking a phrase, part of a psalm, those sorts of things.

I think my spiritual reading as well, I take more time over discerning what I'm going to read and how that would further my spiritual life.

Because although I'm a Benedictine, I like things, pick and mix really, like most of us.

So I might take things from St. John of the Cross or St. Teresa of Avila.

I might take something from Ignatian spirituality or the Carmelite spirituality.

So I think it's weaving, it's weaving a pattern, isn't it?

And it makes a, hopefully, a rich tapestry within our prayer lives.

C: Is there a particular word or phrase from the Bible that you are walking with at the moment?

J: It's interesting because one of my favourite psalms is Psalm 8 and thinking about the Son of Man.

And what does that mean, Son of Man?

So, you know, particularly with women's International Day that we've had, thinking about what that concept means of Jesus being Son of Man.

Of course, it's in a generic rather than specific form.

But yeah, that's been sort of walking a bit with me.

C: Yeah, so in Psalm 8, obviously that was written before Jesus.

Are you thinking of the bit where the psalmist says, "And what is the Son of Man that you would consider him?"

J: Yeah, so sort of God's considering us.

Yeah, but seeing the Old Testament and New Testament again, they interweave, they are a pattern.

And there is a lot of it that sits with Christ and his ministry and who he spoke of being.

C: So as you're contemplating that at the moment, you're thinking of Jesus being the Son of Man?

J: Yeah, sort of partly, but also how we are.

You know, like you said, how we are as well.

How we walk with him.

And I think that's what resonates.

Sometimes when you read the Bible, it may not be absolutely specific to the, you know, what should I say, some of the academic books that we might read.

But something will stand out and really latch on to you.

C: Yeah, and you were saying that there's something about what does it mean as a woman to be the Son of Man.

What are your thoughts about that at the moment?

J: Well, for me, I suppose I always do a little wriggle with some of these things. *giggle*

And I see myself as a daughter.

And I have a good experience of being a daughter in human terms.

So I can relate to that.

And, you know, it doesn't have to be that, you can say daughter of woman.

Why not?

C: It's interesting because as a woman, one of the things that I have been wrestling with in recent years actually is just how much of the religious Christian language is masculine.

And sort of finding myself not entirely represented by that, to put it mildly, and wondering what it is as a woman to sort of find my footing.

J: Yeah, I mean, there is a heck of a lot that’s about women in the Bible and very powerful women, which I take great heart both in the Old and the New Testament.

C: You do have to rifle through to find them though.

J: I don't know.

Of course, there's been a lot of good writing subsequently, you know, on people like Lydia in the Old Testament.

You've got a lot on Susanna and yeah, there's all sorts.

You don't have to dig too deep to find the women.

But the men, of course, dominate because they're the ones who are leading people out of Israel or whatever.

C: So what has helped you on your journey to confidently think of yourself as a daughter of woman?

J: Well, I think probably partly my own mother.

C: Yeah.

J: Because she was a very powerful woman, my mother, and very confident.

So I sort of can relate to that, partly as a role model.

But then, as I say, a lot of the historical figures as well.

You know, Julian of Norwich, you look at her life.

Mother Julian, as we refer to her.

So inspirational.

Marjorie Kemp is another inspirational person.

There's so many women religious.

And then those who have done so much work within social work and prison and, you know, Elizabeth Fry.

You just keep on digging, keep on digging.

You see all these women here who are just there.

C: Yeah.

So part of it is about finding women who are sort of like inspiring figures and role models.

J: Yeah.

C: So as an Oblate, do you have a community of people more locally who are also Oblates?

Do you connect with people more widely or do you mainly connect with West Malling?

J: Well, mostly it is with West Malling because I don't know who lives locally to me who's an Oblate.

I mean, that will maybe be something that just happens.

You know, bump into somebody and they'll say, "Oh yes, I'm a Benedictine Oblate too."

I mean, there are a couple of social media things.

There's an Anglican Benedictine one, which I belong to, as well as there being a general one that is mostly run by Roman Catholics.

So there are a couple of those on Facebook, but I don't, you know, we don't have things like, say with the Julian group, you would meet for silent prayer and reflection and the Franciscans, they meet in their tertiary groups.

But yeah, Benedictines, we basically go to our home, we're homing pigeons.

C: So you said that you've become more reflective.

What else has it offered you?

What else has changed?

J: I think I'm probably more at peace with who I am and what God has called me to.

I think that's probably something that, well, I'm certain that that's something they've given to me as well.

I think it's given me a lot of understanding of people who struggle.

People sometimes come to me for spiritual direction.

They say, "Oh, I'm really struggling to say my office," for example, "because I have so many things coming in."

And I feel much more understanding about saying, "Well, you know, things will come in.

It is difficult and let's see how we can alter that, you know, alter where things are to help you."

And it's just stuff like that, I think, because I've found it sometimes a struggle that helps me then to empathise with those who are.

C: So what are the practices that you think could be helpful for other people that you've picked up?

J: I think the Lectio Divina is something that you can do anywhere at any time in your own home, just reading, as we say, chewing over the cud, chewing over that particular verse in the Bible or in a psalm and making connections, whatever those connections might be.

C: So is that literally that you might have been reading and there's something that stuck out to you and then you go deeper with it?

J: Yes, but you can read a passage or a sentence and it won't necessarily mean anything some days.

But then as you're going about your life, suddenly something might happen and that verse might come back.

It might be relevant then.

So it doesn't have to be at the moment of reading.

C: Right.

J: So that's something.

And I think retreats are a big thing and quiet days for people when they can learn more, say, about the Benedictine way and also experience it.

There's nothing like going on a retreat.

I think it's really good.

And at Moorling Abbey, they have a labyrinth as well, which you can walk, which is about your spiritual journey as you walk it, walking with God.

C: So a labyrinth, if people haven't seen one, it looks like a maze, except that you can kind of see over it.

It's not like in the middle of hedges.

It's a maze, but there's one path through.

So you walk into the middle and then out again.

And I think when I've done it, I've walked into the middle slowly and contemplatively and quite often thought about what I want to leave behind.

J: You can leave stuff in the labyrinth, certainly.

C: Yeah.

And then you get to the middle and then there's a walking out again back into the world.

It can be quite powerful, can't it?

J: Definitely.

I think they're the sorts of things, they’re treats, the Lectio Divina, and maybe finding, I think, a soul friend, somebody who can walk with you on your journey, spiritual company or whatever we want to call them, because that's open and available to everybody.

C: So going back to the retreat, what is it that you think is important about retreat?

J: Retreat, it's about leaving a lot of things behind.

So, phones off.

Tablet, laptops are a no-no.

All of those sorts of devices we say goodbye to for three, five, seven days.

And that can be really tricky for some people.

It's about being reflective.

It's about eating well and trying to sleep well.

It's about praying with the community and reading, writing, painting, you know, all sorts of creative things.

C: So in practical terms, you would go to West Malling or I guess any retreat house.

You'd leave behind quite a lot of the distractions and you're gonna do your best to sleep well and eat well and spend some time reflectively with God.

And you're saying that sort of quite often that feeds into maybe painting or drawing or other things.


And what do you notice about yourself when you come back from retreat?

J: When I come back from retreat, I notice how noisy the world is.

You go from this peaceful, calm, quiet existence and suddenly everything seems a lot louder.

Even a bird singing can seem really off the wall.

And I think that's one of the big things that I've always noticed when I come back from retreat.

But also that I carry with me what has happened on retreat.

And that's the lovely thing.

You carry it with you.

And I keep a journal, so I do write things up.

And I write up about my times at the Abbey.

But equally, I write about things that happen here in my own home as I'm reading the Bible, reflecting, so that I can come back to it.

C: I was asking the question, what do you notice about yourself that's different when you come back from retreat?

J: And I think it is more peaceful, rested.

Yeah, encouraged normally.

You know, sometimes it might be challenged.

It depends what's going on.

C: There is something very healthy about the practice of going away and taking yourself out of your normal life in terms of remembering that one is not entirely essential to the world.

Because you can get to the point in life, can't you, where you're so busy and feeling so required by everybody.

And actually, if you step out for a few days and you take some rest and you take some time to reflect, you come back realising that the world has gone on and it has not fallen apart.

And people have managed without you.

J: Absolutely, yeah.

C: Which I think potentially takes some of the urgency out of the demands afterwards.

Because you can more easily look at them and say, well, actually, I don't have to feel pressured to do this particular thing.

J: I think for me, that hasn't really been so much of a specific because just the way my life has been where I've never felt that I am the lynchpin for everything that happens.

C: No, I know people who do.

J: I'm usually in a in a priesthood.

I don't feel like that.

And I've always had great confidence in my lay leadership teams and in the people generally in the parish.

The only phone calls I've ever had was once when a lady had had a terrible diagnosis.

And so my warden phoned me to say, I know you're coming back tomorrow, but if you could come back via this person, then that would be really helpful.

So otherwise, everybody's got on, I come back.

And I've been away on sabbatical for three months, a time which would include a retreat, but as a priest, we go on a sabbatical every so many years to work on a particular project or whatever it may be.

And when I've come back from that sort of experience, everything is just ticking along very nicely.

C: Yes, I mentioned that because I think there is something about modern life that leaves people quite tired and quite exhausted and quite pulled apart the edges sometimes.

J: Yeah.

And sometimes people have to take on so much.

I can imagine that some listeners will be saying, “huh, what world does she live in? I couldn't possibly get away for a retreat. How could I leave my situation for three, five, seven days?”

And there are things such as you can do a retreat in your own home, for example.

And there's good material out there both in books, and also sort of on websites and things like that, which can really be helpful to people when they just physically cannot get away.

C: Yeah.

Almost bringing tools to do micro retreats, just moments of quiet.

J: Yeah.

C: There was a point when life for me as a parent was so, so hectic that there really wasn't space.

There was just me.

There were demands that were almost constant.

And in those months and years, actually, it really was a case of finding the odd moment here and there.

And it's not the same as being able to get away, but just taking five minutes to sit calmly with a cup of tea.

I remember on one occasion, I think I'd got some daffodils or some tulips or something.

And I just got a cup of tea and literally sat and looked at them for five minutes and enjoyed their beauty.

And it did, it did kind of inject an element of calm.

It would have been lovely to have gone to somewhere like West Malling for several days, but that wasn't...

J: That was not on your...

C: No, that wasn't feasible.

But something about believing that you can take on board some bits of calm, I think is really helpful.

So anything else about Benedictines and things that you think would be useful?

J: I think it's so important for us to remember that there are religious orders out there because we can forget.

You know, there's such a great resource to the church and to individual people.

And we need to, you know, utilise them basically.

And we forget, you know, people say, "Oh, religious orders, that must be Roman Catholic."

But of course, in the Anglican Church, we have Benedictines, we have Franciscans, and we have all sorts of other orders under different names following similar sorts of rules.

So it's all there, but it's just about going and using it and finding it, I think.

C: Yeah.

I don't think you necessarily have to have a faith to appreciate going and being part of it.

J: No, definitely not.

There are some very big community houses out there as well.

And that's for people with all faiths or no faith, you know.

C: Yeah.

A number of years ago, there was a programme on the television called The Monastery, I don't know if you remember it.

J: Yes, I do.

C: And they took people who it really wouldn't have naturally been on their agenda to go and live in the monastery for short periods of time.

And it was really transformative for some of those people.

J: Yeah, definitely.

C: And one or two of them in a different series did stick as well, which was also good to see, you know.

J: Yeah.

C: Well, thank you very much.

That's been really interesting and insightful.

J: Oh, thank you.

Hope you enjoyed this episode of the Loved Called Gifted podcast. If you’d like to get in touch, you can email You can find a transcript of this podcast at and that’s also the place to go if you’re interested in the Loved Called Gifted course or if you’d like to find out about spiritual direction or coaching.
Thank you for listening.

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